Project Eternity: Chris Avellone Discusses How to Build Memorable Characters
'Exploring a character's personality should be as much fun as exploring a dungeon.'
With fifteen years' experience in the games industry and credits to his name including Icewind Dale, Fallout: New Vegas and, perhaps most famously, Planescape: Torment, you might say that Chris Avellone knows a thing or two about the nuts and bolts of game writing. We've written previously on his role in Project Eternity as the story and dialogue lead. Now in a new blog post on the official Obsidian forums, he shares some further insights into the character building process.
"Every character needs to contribute to the mechanics and challenge mechanics in some fashion," Avellone writes. "Any companion that can't hold their weight and help support the home team in some fashion isn't going to last long in the hearts of players (well, maybe a very forgiving few)."
To Avellone, companions are "a sounding board" for the theme of the game. This theme, he says, differs from title to title and should be reinforced by the character's interactions and backstory:
I try to keep the game’s theme in mind while writing (the nature of the Force in K2, the suffering of the spirit in Torment, the idea of “letting go”/obsession/greed in Dead Money) and try to find ways to weave that into the character’s conversation and their history. You don’t want to hammer it home too much, but you want to include enough hooks so when the player thinks back on the conversation, it’ll start to sink in and all click into place once the game enters its final stages.
Avellone added that companions need to "ego-stroke the player" by offering some sort of positive (or at least entertaining) reinforcement. "Any companion that simply sits around [...] haranguing the player isn't someone you want to drag into the nearest dungeon to help clear it out... you may simply want to throw them in the dungeon and lock the door," he notes, adding that this is a misstep he made in one of his earlier projects, Fallout 2. "It became clear that Cassidy was far preferred over Myron, for example (and not just because Myron was an ****)."
Player empathy is obviously of chief concern for Avellone, he reiterates again and again the requirement for characters to serve the player's needs. But it actually goes even further than that for Avellone-- he also aims to put himself in the player's shoes when he writes: "I start a conversation with the character and try to imagine what I’d like to ask them about as players... and often, I try to steer the conversation into game mechanic help, gifts, new perks and skills."
Avellone also stresses the importance of visual/audio "hooks" to be integrated into the character's design and speech mannerisms.
For example, when doing the Fallout New Vegas: DLC, Dead Money, the visual signatures were Dog/God’s bear trap that was still clamped on his arm (along with his name carved in his chest so it could be seen in reverse in a mirror), Dean’s dapper lounge singer suit to contrast with his ghoulish appearance, and even something as simple as Christine’s throat scar (which we had to position carefully so the bomb collar wouldn’t obscure it). All of these things serve to tag the character and helps make them stand out. Each had their own vocal hooks as well (Dog/God’s voice would change based on his personality, Dean had the drippy smooth singer voice, and Christine’s vocal hook was she didn’t speak at all).
The entire blog post --which also covers some finer details about the function of incidental dialogue, building flexible backstories, and establishing a character's look-- is quite meaty, and it continues Project Eternity's trend of providing plenty of transparency and insight into the game's development process. Check it out below.